How Elizabeth Warren learned to be a candidate

Warren took on a Republican in 2012 who wasn’t supposed to win. Can she do it again?

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren ran for office the first time in 2012, when she unseated Republican Scott P. Brown. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren ran for office the first time in 2012, when she unseated Republican Scott P. Brown. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 30, 2019 at 5:00am

This is the fifth installment in “Battle Tested,” a series analyzing early campaigns of some Democrats seeking the 2020 presidential nomination. Read our earlier pieces on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Kamala Harris, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Democrats were hurting. 

A little-known Republican who once posed naked in a magazine spread had just succeeded a revered progressive champion by defeating an underwhelming Democrat, who’d missed the chance to break the glass ceiling.

Scott P. Brown’s victory over state Attorney General Martha Coakley in a 2010 special Senate election in Massachusetts was a gut punch to national Democrats. They didn’t just lose a seat in the Senate; they lost liberal lion Edward M. Kennedy’s seat. 

Then along came Elizabeth Warren. Denied a chance to helm the consumer protection bureau she’d helped create, she took on — and defeated — Brown in 2012 in her first run for public office. It was the most expensive Senate race of the cycle.

Seven years later, Warren is trying  once again to take on a Republican who wasn’t supposed to win. Unlike in 2012, though, a crowded Democratic field isn’t likely to get out of her way. And even if the former Harvard law professor emerges as the choice of the Democratic base, she’s no longer running only in a deep blue state. The stage is bigger, the stakes are higher, and she has yet to put to bed several controversies that first surfaced in that Senate race.

Becoming a candidate

It’s easy to see Warren’s 2012 victory as the good fortune of a Democrat running in a Democratic state in a presidential year. 

But the race didn’t always look that way. 

“The consensus of the elected officials and operatives was that Scott Brown would be almost impossible to beat,” recalled Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at the time.  

Five other Democrats were running. But Brown’s team was watching Warren. 

“I thought she was quite dangerous,” Brown campaign manager Jim Barnett said. Although she hadn’t held elected office, Warren was known in Washington for her performance in congressional hearings on overhauling Wall Street regulations after the 2008 financial crisis. Senate Democratic leadership had appointed her to chair the congressional panel monitoring the bailout, a post she used to forcefully question then-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

She stepped down from that role to launch the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But President Barack Obama decided against nominating Warren to head the agency because Republicans threatened to block her in the Senate. 

“I recall expressing some concern to [the National Republican Senatorial Committee] that she would be the candidate if they did not confirm her,” Barnett said.

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On a scorching summer day in 2011, Warren was packing up her home in D.C. to move back to Massachusetts, when Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY’s List, dropped by to talk about the Senate race. 

Warren had promised her grandchildren she’d take them to Legoland, but almost as soon as she got back, she called Schriock to tell her she was in. Her September 2011 announcement video debuted a frequent Warren refrain: “I grew up on the ragged edge of the middle class.” 

Warren was already a national figure by then. But she wasn’t well-known in Massachusetts, which had never elected a female governor or senator. After Brown’s upset over Coakley, there was skepticism in the state of another woman running. 

“He had just defeated a woman who was supposed to be a sure bet, and everyone was telling Elizabeth she couldn’t win,” her 2012 political director and current campaign manager, Roger Lau, recalled in an email. Warren’s campaign did not make her available for an interview and many of her consultants from 2012 did not comment. 

Warren loved campaigning — and still does. But there was a learning curve. 

“One of the underreported trends around Warren’s presidential campaign is how much she’s improved as a candidate,” said Colin Reed, a spokesman for Brown’s 2012 campaign. 

“The fall was hard,” Schriock admitted, reflecting on Warren’s first few months in the race. “We had to tone down the 16-minute lecture and turn it into a five-minute stump speech.”

The Boston Globe’s Brian McGrory described Warren’s performance at a public appearance in March 2012 this way: “It had the feeling of a Ferrari in the slow lane.” 

“She practiced, and it wasn’t always pretty — it was rough at times,” Schriock said.

But Warren was a quick study, the people around her said, and has been consistent about why she’s running: Her family’s economic struggles have always been the cornerstone of her message.

Off to the races

As 2012 began, Warren’s fundraising advantage came into full view. She raised $5.7 million in the final quarter of 2011, compared to Brown’s $3.2 million. Brown’s allies were being outspent 3-to-1 by pro-Warren groups.

“If that had been allowed to continue, I think we would have seen this race get put away in Elizabeth Warren’s favor a lot sooner,” Barnett said. By the end of January, the Brown and Warren campaigns settled on a “People’s Pledge” that would renounce outside advertising from third-party groups.

Running in a heavily Democratic state, Brown painted himself as an independent lawmaker. His ads didn’t mention he was a Republican; one even pictured him with Obama. He sided with Obama 74 percent of the time — second among Republicans only to Maine Sen. Susan Collins — in 2011 and 2012, according to CQ Vote Watch.  

The constant attack on Warren was that she was part of the liberal Harvard elite and out of touch with the working class. Brown repeatedly referred to his opponent as “professor Warren.” 

But she was soon facing bigger questions about her identity. 

That spring, the Boston Herald broke the story about Harvard Law School promoting Warren as a Native American faculty member. Her inability to directly answer questions about it added fuel to the fire. She later admitted she had identified herself as a minority in a directory of law professors so that she could “meet others like me.”

Brown’s campaign relied on the issue throughout the fall to raise questions about her honesty. “Professor Warren got caught in a lie,” said one voter in a Brown ad from September. 

“Scott Brown can continue attacking my family, but I’m going to keep fighting for yours,” Warren said in a spot the same month.

The issue backfired on Brown when GOP staffers were caught on camera mocking Native Americans outside a Brown campaign event. 

Brown’s campaign was also trying to move on to Warren’s work for corporate clients, which they hoped would undermine her economic message.  

It pounced on a case from 2009, when Warren was paid by Travelers Insurance, which was working to get immunity from asbestos-related lawsuits. Warren argued she was fighting for the constitutionality of bankrupt companies to create trusts for victim compensation. 

In the end, the questions about her Native American heritage and her corporate work didn’t hurt her. But neither issue has gone away.

Warren’s decision to release a DNA test late last year raised questions about her judgement and sparked criticism from progressive groups that had encouraged her to run. Her corporate work is still in the news too, although the attention on President Donald Trump and his racist tweet about four Democratic congresswomen earlier this month overshadowed a Washington Post story about Warren’s work for Dow Chemical. 

A national campaign 

By mid-summer 2012, Warren had effectively nationalized the race so that she wasn’t running against Brown; she was running against the national GOP.

“When she hit that message, she was very disciplined with it,” said Reed, the Brown campaign spokesman.

Warren went after his vote for the Blunt Amendment, which allowed employers to deny coverage for contraceptives based on moral objections, and his vote against Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. 

“Just one vote, one senator, could put Republicans in control of the United States Senate,” said the narrator in a Warren ad from October. 

Scott’s campaign could see the strategy working in their focus groups. Democrats and independents continued to like Brown — exit polls showed him with a 60 percent favorable rating — but when they were told reelecting Brown would put Mitch McConnell in charge of the Senate, their opinions shifted. 

But how much of Warren’s victory was about running in the right place at the right time?

“There are lots of candidates that run in the right year and lose,” said Cecil, the former DSCC executive director, who’s now the chairman of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA. “So it certainly helped that she was running in Massachusetts, and not Idaho. But the reality is that Republicans have won in Massachusetts.”

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, for example, is a Republican, and he earned a higher percentage of the vote than Warren when both ran for reelection on the same ballot last year.  

Warren’s 2012 Senate race was competitive until the end. Heading into Election Day, Inside Elections rated the contest Toss-up/Tilt Democratic. Republicans like to point out that she received nearly 300,000 fewer votes in Massachusetts than Obama, who was running against former Bay State Gov. Mitt Romney

But for Schriock, who’s watched Warren grow since that hot summer day she convinced her to run, that race was about learning.  

“In 2012, she went from a long-winded, sometimes-boring professor — with interesting things to say — to a very energizing, captivating Senate candidate,” Schriock said. 

“She’s not the only candidate, but she is one of the few candidates that is evolving and growing and learning how to be a presidential candidate, and ultimately a president,” she added. “That’s what these campaigns are about.”